Saturday it snowed. Seven hundred and forty inches. Gone by Sunday afternoon, but it made for murderous moods among the locals. We consider the possibility that we are all dead and this is hell - not an expanse of fire and screams, but a green world of tulips and daffodils smothered with the droppings of a misbegotten Canadian front. It goes against the bargain we’ve made; we all expect and accept temps in January that make your teeth hurt and your marrow crack and your skin feel like someone has fed metal shavings into a jet engine. As long as the punishment ends around the time we get fisted by the taxman, we endure without complaint. Three months of non-lethal weather - surely that’s not too much to ask.

Obviously it is.

Sunday I MC’d the Minnesota Youth Symphony concert at Orchestra Hall. Having done it many times, and written about it here, there’s not much new to add. It’s still a thrill to stand out on the stage, face a house packed from the ground floor to the third balcony, and not throw up. This concert was dedicated to 9/11, which made the second opening number all the more cool: The Duel of the Fates from the Phantom Menace, complete with 100+ person chorus shouting their hearts out. Music to bisect Darth Maul by! You could feel that one in the floor backstage, and the audience’s response was atomic. People like Star Wars music, and why not? It lacks the tortured ecstatic individualism of Mahler, the confident humanism of Beethoven, the effortless perfection of Mozart. It’s short and simple and showy, but it works, and to paraphrase the master: if it sounds good, it is good. (Duke Ellington.)

Star Wars battle-themes might be as close as we have to martial music nowadays. Vader’s theme is great martial music, but it’s for the bad guys - which is interesting, when you think about it. American martial music tends to buck the conventions of the genre. Doesn’t have that doom & death 4 U component; too showy. Don’t fear the Army that goes into battle with the Ride of the Valkyres playing. Fear the army that plays Surfin’ Bird.

So how did I spend my free precious weekend entertainment minutes? Reruns. I’d TiVod some “I, Claudius” episodes, each a ripe and bloody installation. (The rise & fall of Jeanus Lucas Sejanus, and the stabby end of Nero Drusus Caesar Germanicus Tiberius Augustus Caligula, or “Little Boots” to his friends.) I love that show. I love the mad depravity of its theme song, its three sets, its wholly imaginary assignment of virtue to some very nasty characters, its exemplary cast. Were I multibillionaire I would have hired everyone to keep making the series until they ran out of Caesars.

Last night I was just beat, and didn’t think I’d make it through a movie - so I popped in a MT3K DVD. Oy, I miss those guys. All the bots and Mads, Joel and Mike - nothing on TV was that funny for that long on so many levels. This one was “Mitchell,” perhaps the ultimate mid-70s piece-of-crap. The cast defined the dreary sort of talent you saw in 47% of all movies with a wacka-chicka soundtrack: Joe Don Baker, Merlin Olson, Martin Balsam, John Saxon (the Thinking Man's John Agar.) Ugly cars, ugly clothes, a crappy babbling Hoyt Axton theme song. This was my early teenhood. This was the culture of my youth. How did we survive?

We were rescued by punk and new wave, of course, which brings me to some other reruns. Got the new Elvis Costello disc, since I had been assured it was a return to his old style. No more thick slabs of dead melodic meat bedecked with baroque curlicues - this was straight! ahead! rock! and! roll! I just put it on, and will give you a play-by-play review here based entirely on the first few bars. Remember: pop music is supposed to make sense sooner than later, and since Costello’s earlier, funnier movies were notable for grabbing you by philtrum immediately, the opening impressions of these songs will be instructive.

45. Front-loaded with a hook; how nice. Blood & Chocolate period thrash. InstaVerdict: hit.

Spooky Girlfriend: loopy mush, by-the-numbers Costello melody. I’d like if I listened to it ten times, but I am quite sure I won't.

Tear Off Your Head: Yes! Behold! It Rocks! But it does so very carefully, as though everyone is playing with freshly stitched hands and sore backs.

When I Was Cruel #2: Mid-tempo party-killing droner. It’s seven minutes long. Skipping ahead indicates that it never changes key. Entertainment Weekly called this song an “Alluring dub tango,” and I can only presume that the review was dictated, and the transcriber misunderstood the words “a lurid butt mangle.”

Soul for Hire: Long-range scanners determine that this song is devoid of fun, Captain; suggest we keep moving

Dust 2: A hook right out of the chute. There, that wasn’t so hard now, was it?

Dissolve: Over-amplified tuneless fuzzy racket. You know that song, “All She Wants To Do Is Dance” ? That growling guitar riff, the maddening repetition of the title, those massed soprano saxes playing off the bass line, the snarky harmonica? Everyone hated that song. Everyone thought it was stupid. I liked it. I wish I was listening to it now.

Alibi: Old ladies in walkers move down stairs with more gusto than this song.

...Dust: nice finger-popping tune; Bobby Darin would have done this one proud. That’s a compliment. (Uh-oh: horns. Never a good sign on a Costello song.)

Daddy Can I Turn This: EW said this would make me want to put on my Armed Forces T-shirt, and indeed it has the same instrumentation; it only lacks the lyrical pith, production clarity and inventive melody of that period. Other than that, sure, it's a dead ringer for an Armed Forces song, once you get past the fact that it sucks.

I give up. I just hit Shuffle in iTunes, and it went to “The Deportees Club,” a minor song from one of Costello’s worst early albums, “Goodbye Cruel World.” It’s ten times more fun than anything on this slab of sludge.
It takes a Brit of his accent to rhyme “Sinatra” and “martyr,” but he did it.

Well, let’s put on the new Pet Shop Boys album; you can always count on the lads and their stable of foxy little remixers for brain-pounding techno. . .

. . . It’s their 70s retro acoustic album.

I give up.

(No-prize award to diligent sifters of American culture: find the Woody Allen and Lou Reed references. The winner announced in tomorrow’s Bleat.)
I am tired and harried and waay overworked, and that usually leads to Bleats with narrow concerns that bore 82% of the customers. (See also, yesterday.) Apologies; free-range Bleats resume tomorrow. Today: well, you’ll see.

Snow’s all gone, tulips are up. Sixty-four this afternoon and snow predicted for May First. I’d be tempted to say there is no God, but there surely is, and it’s Loki. All I know about Norse mythology I learned from my Thor comic books, but I know that Loki was a nasty trickster, a snow-in-May kind of guy. He usually dressed in a skintight green and yellow suit, with strange fabric horns coming from his head.

Why the Norse gods went from wolf-furs to bodystockings I’ve no idea.

And while I’m on the subject - I touched on the Thor problem in my Backfence column, and I’ll repeat it here. If Thor, God of Thunder, was indeed flying around Manhattan on a daily basis, what would this do to organized religions? Here’s a living incarnation of an ancient creed. Flying around. In broad daylight. Imagine the anguish: we’re all waiting for an incarnation to appear, and it’s THAT religion? Like, the God of SWEDEN? I would suggest that this would cause a meltdown in Western society, especially once Thor’s interviewed on TV. “Well, yes, Greta, I am immortal, as you put it." (Easy, gleaming smile.) "I have mastery over the elements - that’s not the same as being responsible for them, however; my lawyers want to make that point clear, because we’ve had some class-action suits from trailer-park residents who think I have something to do with tornadoes.”

Greta: “It’s an interesting legal question, whether your ability to control weather means you are legally responsible for not controlling weather that causes damage.”

Thor: “Well, it’s like the police and crime. The police can respond to crime, but you can’t hold them legally responsible simply because a crime occurs. And if I may, I’d like to point out that during the last season of tornadic activity in Texas, I was in heaven attempting to reholster the sword of Ragnarok, the unleashing of which portends the apocalypse and the destruction of the arrangement of matter as we know it.”

Greta: “So you’re saying you have an alibi.”

Legalisms aside, at some point we’d have to confront Thor’s manifest divinity: “I’m one of many gods, and we live up there, in the sky. Our leader is Odin, who’s your typical big fellow with a white beard. We’re the only gods up there, as far as I know.” People would come out of church, see Thor flying across the sky (with a hammer! A stupid HAMMER!) and feel this horrible pang of doubt.

What’s odd is that no one in the Marvel comic world ever mentioned this; it’s as if there was some unspoken agreement to soft-pedal Thor’s godhood, lest it reflect poorly on the Superhero-American community. Ixnay on the odgay. You’d think that J. Jonah Jameson would have been obsessed with Thor, not Spidey, because -

Well, let me backtrack a bit here. This is Relevant to the contemporary culture, since we’re all about to be inundated in a tide of Spiderman Fever if the movie is as good as predicted. Several notes:

1. The movie looks good in previews. But: the idea that Spidey shoots webs out of his veins, rather than mechanical devices he built himself, is stupid and wrong. Peter Parker was a science geek. He was smart. Sure, he had a variety of arachnid-based powers, but without his own inventive skill, he would have been nothing. His ability to shoot webs and swing from parapet to flagpole was dependent on his intellectual prowess, and without that invention he would have had nothing more than the ability to know when the pizza guy was here before he rang the doorbell. My Spidey-sense tells me that Domino’s is here! Also, the barking dog, and the fact that it’s been 30 minutes.

2. J. Jonah Jameson was the editor of the Daily Bugle, the paper that employed free-lance photographer Peter Parker, aka Spiderman. As a child, this was my introduction to the world of newspapers: they were run by an autocratic man with white sideburns who always had a cigar exactly six inches long (with a half-inch ash) jammed in the corner of his mouth; this editor would Stop the Presses, Remake Page One, and reshape the paper to fit his whims and fits. And this man lied. JJJ hated Spiderman. Hated him. Took every opportunity to portray him as a menace to the city, despite all the evidence to the contrary. In a town with many papers, JJJ had decided to play to the anti-superhero demographic - but why?

There’s an exceptional graphic novel called “Marvels,” a retelling of the entire Marvel comic stories that filled my childhood. At one point JJJ explains why he hates Spiderman and the others: because they are better than us. Because they do great things. Because the fact that we cannot control them makes their altruism all the more intolerable. We are less than they are and we know it, and some of us will always hate them for providing that example. It goes without saying that in this book, the superheroes are not only criticized by tabloid headlines, but subpoenaed to appear before Senate committees and explain why they laid waste to lower Manhattan in a battle against a 40-story itinerant planet-eater.

I hope the movie version of triple-J is true to the comics of my youth. I had to smile today at Target, when I saw some Spider-Man toys. There was a J. Jonah Jameson doll “with desk-pounding action.” A toy editor who sits at his desk and pounds it in impotent anger, enraged by acts of humiliating bravery.

3. I think I know how the movie ends. I was there almost 30 years when the story was told the first time. Comics provide lonely kids with an inner mythology as rich and tragic as the stuff of Greek legends, and it’s all the more precious because the adult world doesn’t care, can't be bothered, and will never know how cool it is. Of course, we’re all adults now; I need only refer to a political faction as “Yancy Streeters” and my old friend the Giant Swede knows exactly what I mean. But when you’re a kid, these stories grant passage to an unseen community, a world in which these ridiculous tales are treated with the respect you grant to your own imaginative fancies. When Captain Stacy (dying from a load of bricks dropped on him by Doc Ock) revealed to Spiderman that he’d always known who he was, and asked him to look after his daughter - well, I thought about that for days afterwards. You couldn’t tell anyone, because they didn’t care, and that made it all the more deliciously tragic.

And now that storyline comes to the screen 30 years later. Millions will watch it. For the first time I can actually talk to people my age - i.e., the very demographic that didn’t care about Spidey when I was a kid - and they will know exactly what I’m talking about.

Live long enough, and the adults all end up booing the Green Goblin too.


Incidentally: Marvels is still available as a collection, and it’s simply one of the best graphic novels ever. Just hit the Buy the Book link below, type MARVELS into the Amazon search field, and off you go. If you need more enticement: the story is told from the perspective of a man on the street who simply observes these creatures from afar. It spends not a moment in the superheroes’ world; there’s none of their corny dialogue, last-minute inventions, hothouse romances. Their battles take place soundlessly in the sky above, while ordinary New Yorkers watch and wait and worry. It’s one of the finest comic books ever done, and every nuance, every detail, every small revelation is spot-on. A few casting notes: Reed Richards is drawn to look like Russell Johnson, the Professor from Gilligan’s Island; Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, is drawn as Timothy Dalton; in the church pews at Reed Richard’s wedding to Sue Stark, you see Dick van Dyke and John Lennon and other mid-60s celebs. It’s just a delight.

Yes, it's just a comic book. So?

One more thing. Just checked the Amazon site, and read the reviews. There's one from "Hassan Galadari from Dubai, United Arab Emirates." He loved the book, and he knows his Marvel. Might there be something archetypal about these tales, that they speak to a kid in UAE?

Just asking.

Hmm. I was all set to sit down for Bleatage when I remembered that I’d promised a piece on the Top Seven Funniest Mary Tyler Moore Episodes for the paper. Since I have the entire series memorized (Mary dates a short guy - why, isn’t that the episode with Hamilton Camp?) I can do this without undue agony, but still, it needs doing. So off I go. Back in an hour.

Okay, I’m back. I really have to tip my hat to TV writers; I don’t know how they write about this stuff. The ability to describe TV shows in an interesting fashion is harder than it looks. If you love it too much, you write useless gush; if you hate it, you look like one of those bitter screw-you-hapless-mortals critics (why, isn’t that the episode with Eric Braedon?) Then your audience self-selects itself down to people who do not watch TV, and want a daily reminder why they are better for it. You can’t act like a ballet critic forced to judge female mud-wrestling.

Today we played much hide-and-seek. This requires banishing Jasper outside, since he always finds me first, and stands there panting with annoyance: why are you standing here doing nothing when you could be throwing a ball? Why? Why? Why? Gnat counts in her uber-cute fashion - one, too, fee, fo, fife, seex, sewen, ait - and then wanders around the house calling DA-DEE until she finds me.

For some reason she has cooled on Elmo, and it’s just as well that we give him a rest. Recall, please, a distant Bleat about anachronisms in children’s entertainment - things like Victrola record players, or catch phrases from vaudeville that mean nothing to children and slightly more than nothing to contemporary parents. Heard another one today on an Elmo portion of Sesame Street; the announcer for the Shoe Channel (don’t ask.) pitched the upcoming programming: “Stay tuned for a really big shoe.”

No child gets the reference. How many 20-something parents get it? Of course it’s a reference to Ed Sullivan, whose insistence that he would be presenting a really big shew became one of the hallmarks for impersonators, but this is Dean-Martin-Roast era material. What in God’s name is it doing in 2002? I have a dim memory of the Ed Sullivan show - it was on Sundays, I think, since I remember seeing it at Grandpa’s house, and we visited the farm on Sundays. I remember Topo Gigio, a marionette mouse, and Senor Wences, a nightmare-fuel whored-up hand that spoke like, well, like Jose Himenez. Senor Wences’ trademark phrase, “s’awright,” also appeared in the credit sequence of the Quick Draw McGraw cartoon show - I seem to remember a strongbox with legs saying “s’awright” at the end, and I remember as a child making the connection to Senor Wences. But what did it mean? Why were these disparate unrelated elements bouncing off each other?

The other endings to our favorite cartoon shows made sense. Jane, stop this crazy thing! Then, and now, a cri de coeur against the implacable forces of mechanistic modernity, an appeal perhaps to a pre-urban matriarchal culture. Same thing on the Flintstones: Willlllma! Fred banged helplessly against the door that symbolized his displacement from the matriarchal order; he was all alone, literally outside of the tribe. Why he didn’t just jump through the window like the damn cat did, I could never figure out.

Okay, time to google “Quick Draw” and “Senor Wences.”

Anyway, the point that I wanted to make before this stupid digression was this: Ed Sullivan was a newspaper columnist. Maybe in ten years I’ll get a show, have a stupid catchphrase and be lampooned three decades hence to tots who do not know and would not care where the phrase came from.

Everything should have asterisks and footnotes.

(Done Googling. Learned: nearly every voice on Quick Draw was Daws Butler, of course. And I’d forgotten his sidekick’s name: Baba Looey, which was an obvious reference to Desi Arnez. How can Speedy G. be banished, but Baba Looey remain?)

That’s it for today; back to work. Sorry for the ramblings. Oh, one more thing: the other day I offered a No-Prize to anyone who could identify the Woody Allen and Lou Reed references in the Bleat. Many folks correctly identified the “earlier, funnier” phrase as a quote from “Starlight Memories,” a later, grimmer Allen film, and the biggest F-U a successful filmmaker has ever given his adoring public. Exactly one fellow got the Lou Reed reference, which was “stable of foxy little remixers” It’s from Street Hassle, a song called “I Want to Be Black” - a song that would make record execs go pale with horror if they were asked to release it today. It rhymes “Shirley Chisholm” with -

Oh, never mind. Trust me. Never mind.

Okay, one more thing. There’s a new Gnat movie up, 1MB of thrilling animal-naming action.

And if THIS all bored the hell out of you, well, yesterday’s Backfence was new. Dreck, yes. But such large portions!
UH Oh. War screed later! You're warned!

Had a fellow come ‘round today to price out some new steps. The concrete flight from sidewalk to cliff is the Shame of Jasperwood; they’re cracked, the bricks are coming apart, the railing is shot. Last fall I had a concrete company estimate the replacement cost, and I think I did a good job of keeping my eyeballs from popping out of my head and rolling across the table. (The trick is to inhale, sharply, and hold your breath.) It reminded me of the day when the remodelers presented their final plan for a proposed addition to the old house. We’d told them what we wanted to spend, and they came in a little over budget. One hundred thousand dollars over budget. And that did not include extras like - and I’m not kidding - floors. The interviews, the nights spent looking over plans, looking at materials, chatting over whether we wanted the deck to have an entrance here or here - all that time added up to that moment, and at that moment I thanked them and showed them the door. Cordially. We never spoke again.

You could make a good living doing this: taking a few grand to draw up plans, then blowing out the budget by such a preposterous amount that your client simply wants you to go away. For all I know, they never build any houses at all.

I’m sure I shared some responsibility here, what with my grandiose plans for a walk-in bathroom, floor-to-ceiling walls and floors everywhere, but still.

Yesterday I saw a flier on my doorknocker, advertising Stone Steps. I realized that the price of replacing the Shame of Jasperwood is unlikely to go down, so I called the fellow. He came over, sketched some ideas, and made a very reasonable estimate. (Which I instantly doubled, just to be realistic.) The cost is still horrendous - I don’t know why I thought steps would be cheap. It’s just sand and assorted chemicals, for heaven’s sake. Of course, there’s the cost of hiring assorted burlies to break up the stairs, but for some reason I assumed this would be inexpensive. Apparently I have in the back of my mind some Depression-era labor-market model, where men show up hat in hand asking if I’ve any work, and I grudgingly admit that yes, I’ve some steps that need demolishing. There’s a blueberry pie in it for you, boys.

My favorite line in the estimate was an “upcharge.” It sounded like an extra charge, an upgrade, a special fee for this type of stone. No, it’s a charge for hauling the steps Up. After a certain height, you get an upcharge. There was also a $300 charge for renting a Dingo, and when I asked what that was, I was informed it was a machine that climbed to the top of the stairs. At this point I also expected a $250 charge for the machine that goes Ping! but he explained that the Dingo hauled something, or compacted something, or hauled a compactor, or whatever. My fault for not understanding, perhaps. Work will begin in July. Which is to say August.

It's the Bandwidth-busting Jasper-movie Bleat! Let's go:

Five o’clock. I’m making supper. Doorbell: Dingdong. Dog barks as if criminals smeared with squirrel guts had forced their way into the house; Gnat, who is in the living room stacking pillows for no apparent reason, runs into the kitchen through one door as I exit the other. I cannot find her, and naturally conclude she has gone up the stairs, fallen, and broken her neck. BARKBARKBARK, meanwhile. Dingdong again. Gnat cries: she’s in the kitchen. I run to the kitchen, expecting bloody disaster, but she’s just a little unnerved by Jasper’s ungodly racket - I scoop her up, go to the door: UPS. The deliveryperson hands me a package. As I head back in I hear the unmistakable sound of the milk boiling over. Run to stove, swear. Later, wife comes home, flops on the sofa, opens a beer and tells a tale of her day at the office, and I think: you didn’t even say a WORD about the meal I made.

Utter, complete, total societal inversion.

The UPS deliveryperson was female, incidentally.

Not a total inversion. The UPS package was Castle Wolfenstein game, which I don’t think many 50s housewives would have enjoyed. Soon I will be playing it! Soon I will be ventilating Nazis! So let’s bang out a Bleat pronto. And for all who’ve asked for a certain something, that certain something is up today. As you’ll see.

Reading books to Gnat today, I realized that this is the golden age of children’s illustration -

Hey! Wake up. This is not some treacly kid’s story; it’s a Major Cultural Shift. Stay with me.

Gnat got a Clifford the Big Red Dog book at the library, and she read ever page correctly: red dog. (Turn page.) Big dog. Red. (Turn page.) Dog. Big. Red dog. That about sums it up. What’s interesting to me about the series - and there are 15,427 Clifford books, right down to" Clifford the Big Red Dog is Put Down and the Smoke from the Crematorium Blackens the Skies for Three Days" - is the unforgivable crudity of the illustration. Not the simplicity, the crudity.

What the hell is this?

I’ll tell you: it’s typical 70s artwork. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that children’s art started downhill after academic representational art had galloped into the ditches. The way was paved in the late 50s and 60s, when animation passed from its glory years to three-frames-per-second Hanna-Barbera crap, UPA minimalism and the unbearably crude work of Total Television. Yes, Rocky and Bullwinkle was great, but when you added it up with King Odie, The Hunter, Underdog, and all the rest, you had an entire generation whose visual vocabulary was dumbed down as far and hard as possible.

But still, why? Maybe there just weren’t enough people who knew how to draw. I’m serious - the collapse of commercial illustration dried up the talent pool. When ads shifted to photography, there were fewer opportunities for artists, and the second- and third-tier talents that had found work in children’s illustrations were no longer to be found. Those who would have been merely average didn’t bother to go into the field at all. Look at this coloring book from the 40s (found at an antique store):

Not great, but Botticelli compared to Little Miss Raindrop nose above.

You have to understand that for many decades, lousy art was fashionable. Especially in the 70s. Particularly in the 70s. All kids in books and the rare illustrated ads looked like some forceful conjoining of Mason Reese, Mikey from the Life commercials, sitcom brats and mop-head hobbits in jeans and sneakers.

There’s still lots of bad kid art, and most of it comes from England. I could tell right away that this was a British book without checking the credits.

But there’s been a resurgence in the craft of children’s illustration, and the practitioners are almost entirely female. Locked out of the serious art world, which concerns itself with Message Art and Identity Art and Kill-the-Patriarchical-Wabbit Art, these artists have produced works of splendid visual sophistication. And of course there’s William Joyce, who is brilliant beyond words:

And the same man came up with the Rolie Polie Olie world of computer-generated robots, which have more clever inventive merriment and humanity than any of the witless dreck I watched as a kid.

This is all a rough simplistic overview, but my thesis holds: not everything today is Worse Than It Was Before. Ever since Abstract Impressionism elbowed the old world off the stage, High Art has abdicated its job to reflect the society in which it was born. You have to look to advertising, movies, magazine illustration - and children’s books. Judging from the lovely, bright inventive work I see in the stores today, the state of illustration is in a golden age. You just have to look in unusual places.